Kick out your autopilot

Can looking again at what you already know give you a fresh perspective?

By: Jo,   3 minutes

It’s hard to believe that here at Stranger Collective we’ve been Feeding for almost a year. For the team, taking a Day 10 now feels as natural as putting the kettle on at 3 o’clock or having a Monday morning catch up meeting. It’s what we do and it helps us work better.

Quite a few of the Day 10s we’ve taken have been about trying something new; taking us out of our comfort zone, learning new skills or tackling new projects, encouraging our brains to work out how to deal with something we might not have encountered before. This has proven to be extremely beneficial and definitely a great way to boost our creativity.

But for my last Day 10, I wanted to think about how we can keep that creativity going even when we’re not doing new things. How can you give your brain a jolt when there doesn’t seem to be much about a situation that’s remarkable? How can you shrug yourself out of the kind of autopilot that the brain likes to fall into when parts of your life, out of necessity, become routine?

It’s often said that writers should write what they know, but if you’re stuck seeing and doing the same old things, it’s easy to start feeling that what you know isn’t actually very interesting. It would be lovely if we could fill our lives with exciting new things to inspire us all the time, but when that’s just not possible, I think the trick is to train ourselves to look again. To question what we think we see and know.

To test this theory, I decided to try and find a way to look again at the area around where I live. I’ve lived here for nearly five years and because Falmouth is small I walk most of the time. If I decide to go to the shops or the beach or a friend’s house, my autopilot kicks in and my feet take me where I want to go without me really having to think.

I wanted to stop and take things in, to make me think about my surroundings. So I thought about taking my camera out with me to see what new things I might notice through a lens (and also make me seem less like some odd woman basically standing in the street staring at things). But it’s quite hard to just decide to look more closely. As many projects I’ve seen and been hearing about recently prove, it often helps to have a constraint or limitation to make a task easier to get into. But how to decide on a constraint? I thought the delightful randomness of Twitter might give me some inspiration. Could I look for a particular colour or number or word that someone mentioned? Could I take a theme for my little photo walk from what was trending? In the end, my constraint was hiding in plain sight, and it started with a hashtag – #. Then I noticed an @, and an * and a few //. I realised that Twitter is chock full of punctuation. Wonderful, wonderful punctuation without which things would make a lot less sense.  It’s everywhere, helping us understand, but it’s kind of invisible. The perfect constraint for a day of noticing new things.

So I opened my front door and went in search of punctuation. I didn’t have a destination in mind, I just let my camera and my quest lead me. At first, I felt a bit weird because there clearly aren’t any actual question marks on my road, speech marks do not feature heavily in the park and asterisks aren’t usually found on the beach. Even when I started convincing myself to look a bit harder, it was a bit disheartening because there didn’t seem much that looked vaguely like punctuation. But before too long, it clicked. As my brain got used to what I was asking of it, my eyes started delivering up what I was looking for. But not only that, and this is what’s really wonderful, I started noticing things that I wasn’t even looking for. With the excuse of taking photos, and having tricked my brain out of its natural desire for reason and purpose, I could stand and stare and observe people and things I would never otherwise have noticed. I caught snippets of conversations and noticed gestures. I wondered why, imagined answers and played out scenarios in my head. I had new ideas.

My day of looking differently was a success, but now I want to build on it and learn an even better trick. Not just seeing things anew every now and again, but continuing to develop the habit so that I never stop looking; I never get stuck on autopilot. Because it’s how you look that determines what you see.


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